South Downs National Park: 10th Anniversary

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs 7:03 pm, 12th January 2021

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I beg to differ. I do not want to turn this into a debate about taxation, but in my view it would be a simplification—business rates are highly complex, but the value added tax system is well understood and relatively simple in terms of compliance.

Another area of economic activity is the exceptional South Downs national park tourism offering. According to the South Downs National Park Authority, an astonishing 19 million visitors come to the park each year. Perhaps that is not so surprising when we think of the lovely picturesque walks through chalk hills and rural heathlands, the thousands of unique and artisan businesses, and the world-beating places to stay. It generates more than £350 million for the local economy, employing about 5,000 people—although, from my inbox during the pandemic, I believe that is a significant underestimate of what the sector contributes, because it does not lend itself to easy measurement.

If one thing keeps visitors coming back, it is our wonderful and diverse local country pubs. They are at the very heart of what community means to me. Some are literally centuries old, and never in their entire history of plagues and invasions have they had to face the unprecedented challenge of wave after wave of such Government restrictions. As well as making the case for continued support for hospitality businesses, one practical thing that I am doing is to produce a local guide to promote those vital establishments and, after this sad period of absence, to remind us all of their many and varied attractions. The park, too, is helping in the pandemic. Despite a limited budget, the park has established its own £375,000 covid recovery fund, with beneficiaries such as The Hungry Guest bakery, Sussex Lamb and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Pulborough Brooks reserve.

For more than 6,000 years, humankind has embraced the abundant natural resources that the South Downs has to offer. Farming started here in the bronze age and, with more than three quarters of the South Downs farmed and much of the remainder forestry and woodland, the park works closely with farmers, foresters and estates. I am told that there are more sheep than people, so it was with shared relief on behalf of local farmers that we learned of the new trade agreement between the UK and the European Union recently, with its tariff-free access to markets for Sussex lamb producers. I am grateful to my local farmers and the National Farmers Union for the constructive dialogue that we had locally. Our departure from the European Union to me should be a huge opportunity to transform British agriculture, including more domestic market share, raising quality and sustainability, and improving the profitability of food production.

The national park has six farmer-led farm clusters that cover two thirds of the park, with the excellent Arun to Adur cluster in my constituency. They have pioneered the approach of whole estate plans with larger rural businesses. That gives the park authority a solid platform on which to work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the creation and delivery of the new environmental land management or ELM scheme, whose success is so vital to us all. I know that the cluster would welcome the opportunity to work with the Minister and his colleagues to develop landscape-scale proposals and for our farmers to be involved in the national pilot to ensure that ELM recognises biodiversity and access, and enhances our cultural heritage.

It is not just farming. In recent years, the fertile soils of the South Downs have witnessed the growth of vineyards, producing a variety of internationally recognised outstanding wines. With soil composition and south-facing slopes similar to those of the Champagne region of France, viticulture in the South Downs is rapidly becoming the heart of British wine country. The many distinguished sparkling wine producers across the South Downs include Nyetimber, Wiston, Hattingley and Bolney. I recently had the chance to see winemaker Dermot Sugrue at work on the Wiston estate and, in what must be one of the only silver linings of that terrible year, he assured me that 2020 will produce one of the finest English vintages yet. Members might also be interested to know that, if their constituents visit and shop here for souvenirs, they can now purchase an English sparkling vintage from Digby Fine English, a producer of world-class English sparkling wine based in Arundel and the House of Commons gift shop official supplier. Buy now, as they say, while stocks last!

But if there is a single thing that excites me—and, I suspect, the Minister—most about the park, it is the contribution that it makes to nature and biodiversity. From the grazing marshes of the floodplains of the Rivers Arun and Adur to the lowland grassland on the slopes of the downs, the national park contains an amazing 660 protected sites of special interest and many internationally important habitats supporting rare and endangered species of plants and animals.

It is possible to spot iconic plant species such as burnt orchid, chaffweed and bulbous foxtail. Our heaths are home to adders, sand lizards and both the field cricket and the wart-biter bush cricket. Almost 40 different types of butterfly can be found within the park’s boundary, including the exceptionally rare Duke of Burgundy, which was recently found to be thriving on the Wiston Estate. The South Downs farmland bird initiative has helped a wide range of threatened bird species found on farmland across the South Downs, including the grey partridge, lapwing, yellowhammer and skylark.